Books · China

River Town

I first read Peter Hessler in 2008 during my final semester when I borrowed Oracle Bones. I finished it while at my grandmother’s bedside in the hospital as she lay unconscious and dying and for that, that book will always be associated with a morbid memory for me. Hessler writes with a thoughtful, pensive and understated narrative and there’s a somewhat mournful air to his writing, though not excessively naive or sentimental. This time, I read River Town, his first book with Oracle Bones being his second, and it was a decent read. Focusing on his 2-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in a minor Sichuan town on the Yangtze River, Hessler truly makes the place -Fuling, a town most of us have never even heard of – seem compelling and alive, with his vivid descriptions of life including the harshness, the nonstop vehicular cacophony, the residents, the natural beauty and poverty. As an English professor at a teachers college, his students and school and party political and bureaucratic drama also play significant parts in the book, as he describes the different characters of his students, the drinking parties/ competitions/ bullying, and the ridiculousness of constant censorship of textbooks and lessons, which he, not surprisingly, is critical of. What I really like about Hessler’s writing is how he can be very forthright and even harsh, but also open about his uncertainties and faults. There’s not really any pretentiousness, though he gives a lot of interesting opinions about Sichuanese people – for instance using Deng Xiaoping as an example with his ability to endure hardships, such as his suffering in the Cultural Revolution, and his forthrightness in crushing the 1989 student protesters.